Sunday, 22 September 2013

From Numpty Nick to the great survivor- what a difference a year makes.

Friends, Romans, malcontents, I come not to bury Nick Clegg but to praise him, well to tip my hat to his remarkable survival skills anyway. The Liberal Democrats held their conference in Glasgow this week and both party and leader emerged from it looking less fragile than anyone would have thought.

In his keynote speech on Wednesday Nick Clegg said that only the presence of the Lib Dems in government had prevented the UK from ‘swinging to the right.’ They had fought the good fight and prevented their coalition partners from imposing a right wing agenda, although the austerity they have supported so enthusiastically since 2010 does seem a teensy bit right of centre; but conference season is no time for cynics.

It had, he said, been an ‘endless battle’ and that ‘sometimes compromise and agreement isn’t possible and you just have to say no.’ He then helpfully ticked off a few of the things his party had said no to ‘inheritance tax cuts for millionaires- no. Bringing back O Levels, no. Profit making in schools, no. Firing workers at will, no…’

The list went on and on, probably for a little too long. The majority of the policies he sought to claim credit for having saved the nation from didn’t have the legs to make it beyond the confines of a boozy ministerial lunch. By contrast some of the ones his party has been content to let through the net, the bedroom tax, savage welfare reforms and those university tuition fee hikes that ruined his reputation in the first place have had disastrous consequences.

Mr Clegg also touched on the negative impact the unpopularity he has experienced since entering government had on his family saying there were times when he thanked his ‘lucky stars’ that his children were too young to understand what the papers were saying about him. Yes Nick it’ll be a nice surprise for them when they’re older. What did you do during the recession Daddy? I was the most unpopular man in the country.

It had though, he asserted, all been worth it, ‘every insult we’ve had to endure since we entered government, every snipe, every bad headline. That was all worth it because we are turning Britain around.’ Quite a tough sell to the hundreds of Liberal Democrat councillors who have lost their seats in recent local elections I’d imagine.

Then it was on to the ‘vision thing or his best attempt at one. After all they’d been through; he said the ‘absolute worst thing to do would be to give the keys of number ten to a single party; Labour or the Conservatives.’

He asked his audience to imagine the leader’s debates in the 2015 election campaign during which ‘David Cameron will say to Ed Milliband: you’re irresponsible, you are going to drive the economy to ruin. Ed Milliband will say to David Cameron: you can’t be trusted to help everyone, your party only cares about the rich.’

Then came the killer line, the one part of the speech he must have stayed up all night practicing ‘For once I’ll agree with them both. Because they’re both right; left to their own devices they’d both get it wrong.’

There it is folks, the big idea; the Liberal Democrats would like to see another coalition government because they’d like a shot at messing things up too. They’ll probably get their wish, hence the thinly veiled hints that they would be happy to snuggle up to Labour if they rather than the Tories come up with the goods in 2015.

Circumstances meant that I had to listen to Nick Clegg’s speech on the radio, which gave me ample opportunity to wonder at the weirdness of his tone of voice. He seemed to be using a strange semi-whisper reminiscent of a primary school teacher assuring his charges that although the cod liver oil of being in government tastes horrid it really is doing them good.

That said this was probably his best speech and his most successful conference since the heady days following the first leader’s debate during the 2010 election when he was, briefly, the most popular politician since Churchill. He managed to get several key votes on economic and defence policy to go his way and the pre-conference call from ex-minister Sarah Tether for him to resign and Vince Cable’s annual Old Testament prophet routine were distractions where previously they might have been disasters.

The laws of political evolution suggest that the Liberal Democrats should be joining the Dodo and the Passenger Pigeon on the extinct list and yet conference season has seen them present the image of a party that is surprisingly united and focussed. Gone is the fluffy party of old that prattled earnestly away on the fringes of British politics, in its place is tougher, more pragmatic organisation. They know they may never wear the crown, but realise the power to be wielded in helping make someone else king.

It may all, of course, be a false dawn, there are lots of things that could go wrong between now and the next election, but for now things are going well. As they head for Brighton this week it is Labour who have it all to prove, and after a summer of missed opportunities and self inflicted wounds their prospects don’t look good.

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